The Education of an Idealist

I felt I had the Obama-era cabinet members and advisers pretty well covered already – those who had served in the White House (such as Michelle Obama, Alyssa Mastromonaco and Beck Dorey-Stein) and those who should have served in the White House (Hillary Clinton), but I came across another book that I didn’t want to pass on: The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power.

The White House shenanigans make for entertaining read for anyone who’s ever been hooked on The West Wing, The House of Cards or pretty much any other type of American TV: most Europeans know the American political system better than they know how decisions are taken in the European Union. Given that US politics were often so closely intertwined with European politics (that’s to say, before the current administration), it is always interesting to snoop for any gossip about us Europeans during bilateral meetings or larger international gatherings in memoirs and biographies.

Plowing through people’s travel logs and lengthy descriptions of various Situation Room -meetings can be tedious, though. The most interesting parts are always the candid bits where the author lets her guard down a bit and is honest about how she really went about combining her personal life (as in not having any) with a high-octane job. Mastromonaco and Dorey-Stein are self-proclaimed over-sharers (IBS, painful periods, sleeping with married colleagues, it’s all there), so I was intrigued what style Power had chosen for her Pulitzer-winning memoir.

Samantha Power was chosen by Obama during his first mandate as one of his foreign policy advisers, and she served Obama’s second mandate as the US Ambassador to the United Nations. Her background is in journalism (she was a war correspondent in Western Balkans – where many a handsome foreign policy career has taken off) and had published widely on the topic before she was offered a job as presidential Cabinet official.

The Education of an Idealist has all the usual stuff one would expect in a memoir by a high-level policy-wonk. There’s the breakdown of official travels, the misery of ebola, the childhood difficulties (Power is an Irish immigrant), the setbacks, the determination, the finding of love, the miscarriages and finally the plush embassy residence in Waldorf Astoria in the middle of New York City.

What you will never find in a similar, admittedly highly accomplished memoir by a man, however, is the acknowledgement that things were hard at first. That at first the West Wing did not meet your expectations, or vice versa. That you thought you were the cat’s meow when you accepted your dream job, and, turns out, you weren’t. At least immediately.

“It felt surreal and embarrassingly self-centered to be unhappy working in the White House. I thought about my Irish cousins and aunts and uncles who were so amazed by my place of employment that they were planning to fly a very long way to get personal tours. (…) I knew I did not yet have the relationships, the clout, or the mastery of bureaucratic processes I needed to maximise my impact.”

Power soon learned that there’s no manual for a White House job (not even a proper map to navigate the building, resulting in the faux pas of arriving to meetings late, and, on one occasion, passing out during one) and that her access to the POTUS would be extremely limited and rare (“Experiencing such a drop-off in contact with Obama had been a shock to my system – and my ego”.)

“Instead of recognising the division of labour that necessarily occurs in government, I took it personally. When I was not included in meetings – meetings that, when I did get to attend, usually proved underwhelming – I began to feel as though my colleagues didn’t trust me or value what I had to say. (…) I would not get to travel as often as I had as a journalist … and of course I still felt pangs when I saw others at the center of the action.”

In the beginning Power described her White House experience as landing in the “lower left hand quadrant: not respected, not effective”. So what did she do to improve, then? Clearly learning the bureaucratic ropes comes naturally with time. Power joined an unofficial women’s network inside the White House, “The Wednesday Group”, which would prove a useful forum for under the counter information and reality-checks – one colleague admitting that the large amount photographs of herself and the President on her office wall was misleading: “Every single time I have been in his presence, I have requested a photo. I hang every one of them up because it makes foreign diplomats think I’m a big deal.”

She would remind herself of the motto of her Al-Anon -group (for family members of alcoholics, Power’s father died of alcoholism): “Never compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides.” She would take good advise when it was offered to her, as was the case with Richard Holbrooke, who told Power to change her focus and prioritize – “Go where they (other senior US officials) ain’t”. When Power would self-consciously complain about being snubbed from meetings and not getting the big-ticket foreign policy dossiers, Holbrooke would snap her out of the myopia and tell her to “fixate on getting things done and not on the bullshit” and this would earn her a reputation for competence.

And then ultimately she did, and got the coveted ticket to be the US Ambassador at the UN.

Instead of hundreds of pages of chest-banging and cataloguing every important person you made acquaintance with, this is the important and useful stuff. To see that even these big shots make mistakes (Power made a big one related to Hillary Clinton and was temporarily suspended from duties) and miscalculations. That while the top-tier of any political ecosystem is a big hunking festival of inflated egos, people are still uncertain, fragile and very often have no fucking clue.

I recognise the feelings of inadequacy and hits to ego that Power writes about. Being excluded from meetings or being withheld from information, or not being granted access are all issues I have experienced in my professional life. I, too, would take everything personally and thought I was the biggest failure in history – and this is before we even start discussing the soul-destroying impostor syndrome.

It’s still difficult to admit having normal human feelings in politics. I can’t think of any other field (they do exist I’m sure, but I only have experience from politics) where being vulnerable is the absolute worst a person can admit to being. People usually edit their stories to play out exclusively as continuously upwards success narratives, because being branded weak in any way is still a stigma, and quickly turns others away, as it is seen as potentially contagious.

The only time I’ve ever received dozens of private messages about a blog post or column was the one in which I wrote openly about how it felt to leave the official armour at the departures office and walk out of the door as a mere person. “Thank you for being so honest, and thank you for writing out my own fears – I could never have done it publicly” was the message in most of them. It’s very telling.

I had Power’s book for months before I read it, as I wasn’t feeling a 500-pages C-Span- situation during the lockdown (I was already crying every time I saw anything with Obama in it, so I wasn’t sure I could deal with a full book of reminiscing what it was like when US played a serious role in international politics.)
It wasn’t C-Span at all (well, a little), and I would warmly recommend the book to any politics-junkie, diplomat or civil servant. The (another) good thing about having more women in high ranks of public service is that there will be more of them sharing their stories that many of us can relate to, even if we didn’t work in the White House.

All citations are from The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power.

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